A geography course at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh is what motivated Ryan Mielke to enter the travel industry. Studying different destinations and cultures was far more interesting to Mielke than what he was learning in many of his business classes, so when an internship opportunity at his aunt’s travel agency in Florida came along, he jumped at the chance and has never looked back. According to Mielke, it was the perfect combination of timing and passion.
His career began humbly, answering phones and organizing brochures. Seven years later, Mielke has traveled the world and is now the manager of Regency Travel in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. His team consists of 11 travel agents in the office and five more that work remotely.
We live in an age where many people book travel online. Where do travel agents fit in?
I often tell other young agents that we need to reinvent the role of a travel agent — if our peers think we are obsolete, we need to change the way they think. We’re so much more than people who book flights from A to B. We are consultants, advisors, planners, specialists, experts and more.
Today, so much information is available online that we have started to see a shift from a knowledgeable clientele to a misinformed — even an over-informed — clientele base. There is so much information online that people are often overwhelmed and need an expert to steer them in the right direction.
I like to use a WebMD analogy. Let’s say that you are sick, so you type your symptoms into the WebMD search bar. Soon you find yourself diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. So what do you do? You seek a doctor’s expertise to find out what’s truly wrong.
The same goes for travel information. People type in a destination they’re interested in and get an overwhelming response — more than 200 hotel options, misleading reviews and tours run by locals itching for credit card numbers. Travel agents mitigate this. We are no longer in the business of making mass bookings of flights to Chicago — we are using our expertise to sift through the options and personalize your trip.
What do you do differently than ‘traditional’ travel agents?
Today it’s all about personalization. We need to deliver something that makes our clients feel special, something they can’t get from an online travel agency.
I like to use social media to interact with younger clients and suppliers. I give restaurant recommendations and share stories and pictures of the destination with my clients. I make personalized itineraries that cater to their specific interests.
Our agency does little to no marketing — our name travels by word of mouth. The company has done this for more than 25 years now and it hasn’t failed yet. We take pride in our reputation, and we make sure our clients are very well supported. We think of our clients as friends, and this comes through in our service.
What do you like about being a travel agent?
Every day is different: new clients, destinations, ideas and problems. I would go crazy if I had to sit at my desk and do the same task over and over again, but in this industry everything is constantly evolving and every agent has to change accordingly.
Of course one of the biggest benefits of being a travel agent is the opportunity to travel myself.
Even better than that, though, is when I come back from a fam trip and am better able to sell that destination. My clients can sense my enthusiasm when I share what I’ve experienced.
What are some business goals that you have?
I would love to become a Certified Travel Counselor (CTC). Knowledge is power in our industry, and becoming a CTC opens up many doors for training and education.
Growing the business for younger clientele is also a goal. Breaking down those misconceptions is an everyday chore — we have to be persistent and positive.
What issues do you think our industry is facing right now? What can we do to address those issues?
The misconceptions that exist about travel agents are our main obstacles. We’ve been torn down in the media, by the government and by airlines themselves. But we’ve been resilient. You always see us listed as one of the dying industries, but I feel like we’re stronger than ever.
We have great relationships with our suppliers, co-workers and even our competitors. Social media sites and Web forums have done wonders for us. Many travelers face problems while on a trip — we are here to take care of those bumps in the road for you.
Travel is one of the most up-and-down industries in the world. We must stay open minded, keep adapting and stay positive about the future.